Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1281
In a mountain forest glade Rautendelein, a beautiful elf-child, sits singing and combing her long, golden hair while calling to a water spirit, the Nickelmann. She makes fun of the croaking froglike monster who comes out of a nearby well. Into that setting skips a faun who seems enamored of the lovely sprite and who invites her to be his love. She refuses, as if this is not her destiny. When she leaves, the wood and water sprites discuss the intrusion of man in their hallowed realms, the sprites that day forcing off the road and into a valley lake a bell meant for a mountaintop church. The bell-founder appears, quite exhausted and badly injured from his fall. He collapses before the cottage of Wittikin, a witch whom mortals in the region greatly fear. Her granddaughter, Rautendelein, strangely drawn to the thirty-year-old Heinrich, makes him a bed of straw and gives him milk to drink.
Heinrich is also drawn to this beautiful creature whose speech is song and who makes him glad to leave the mundane life below. He tried to match the musical note of her voice in his supreme creation, the bell in the lake. He calls her his sweet fantasy and the glade his real home. He begs for a dying kiss. Wittikin tells the child all mortals die while they, the mountain folk, Thor’s children, must go about their immortal business.
When voices interrupt a merry troll dance, Rautendelein fears she will lose this strange man. A wood sprite answers the rescue party, which consists of a clergyman, a teacher, and a barber—envoys of the outer world of spirit, mind, and body. The Vicar, spirit-weak, cannot go on, though the Barber urges them all to leave the bewitched area and the Schoolmaster declares such an attitude mere superstition. Frightened, each addresses Wittikin, who in turn ridicules their master-worker and his trade as well as their respective callings, for she and her kind hate clanging bells and all human enterprise. The villagers carry Heinrich away as a group of elves and sprites dance furiously. Rautendelein also dances, though she tells the Nickelmann her spirit is not in it. They examine in wonder a tear from her eye, a globe of human pain. Thor flashes out and mocks her with raindrops. The Nickelmann warns her not to live with this half-man who belongs partly in their world, but she turns to the world of men.
In the meantime, the bad news reaches the bell-maker’s home. Magda, Heinrich’s wife, tells a neighbor what labor the task had cost her husband and then goes off to meet her husband’s body, terribly disconcerted by the pallbearer appearance of the rescuers. Heinrich revives and, speaking as one already dead to his anxious wife, begs her pardon for hurts done. He renounces his great work as a misshapen thing providentially destroyed—a work for the valley rather than for the mountaintops. Saying that he now wants no part of this world of flesh, he refuses all aid and becomes unconscious. The Vicar will not seek aid from Wittikin; but Rautendelein, thought to be deaf-mute Anna from the wayside inn nearby, breathes life into the body while the villagers seek other help. Heinrich, recovering, recognizes her as nature, essential life, beauty; he will go with her onto the mountain. He declares to the returning Magda that he will live, though he is unaware of her joyful embrace.
Heinrich’s presence in the mountains irritates all the supernatural folk. Taking up quarters in an abandoned glassworks, he mines ore, cuts trees, and, worst of all, makes Rautendelein his bride. The Nickelmann is jealous, though the wood sprite says she will never love a water spirit, at least not as long as Wittikin remains the bell-founder’s friend. When these creatures tease Rautendelein about her earthly lover, she replies that their accursed race could by his industry and strength become renewed.
The Vicar, now dressed in mountain costume and determined on his course, interrupts this argument. He accuses the sprite of bewitching and holding Heinrich without his consent. This charge she denies. At that moment the master craftsman appears. Misled by flattery, Heinrich declares by occult signs that he is a new man, and he drinks to the Vicar’s health while explaining his exuberant yet fundamental new life.
The bell-founder’s vision is a chime of the finest metals that would ring by itself, through God’s will and for no earthly church. The Vicar, denouncing this ecstasy, recounts Heinrich’s earthly obligations to the Church and especially to his bereaved wife and children. He says it would be better if Heinrich were dead than to see him sustained by supernatural and sacrilegious beliefs. When Heinrich defends Rautendelein and his new life, the minister declares that both the people and God will crush him, that the arrow of rue will pierce though not kill him. This arrow cannot pierce him any more than his great bell could ever toll again, Heinrich declares.
Some time later Heinrich, desperately working his forge, drives his dwarf helpers to exhaustion in an attempt to create his beatific vision, to mold the ideal. As one dwarf whispers in his ear, another angrily shatters the piece on which they worked so furiously; it is imperfect. Heinrich gives them a holiday and declares all can go to the devil and he will garden, eat, drink, sleep, and die. Exhausted, he dreams that the Nickelmann ridicules his mortality, his weakness, and his uncompleted works. He thinks his old bell longs to ring out, though choked with blood and sunk so deep. He awakens in terror and calls Rautendelein for comfort; she responds by calling him her God and caressing him into illusions of immortality.
Incompleteness and imperfection goad him still, however, and he strikes out pridefully for work. He is warned not only by her but by the spirit of the wood, the faun of sensuality, and by distant voices that cry out from below. Though he thinks himself triumphant, a half remembered tolling unsettles him as the phantom forms of his two children bring him a pitcher of Magda’s tears and the news that her dead hand rings the sunken bell. Heinrich renounces Rautendelein and tears himself from her.
At midnight, near the well, the weary Rautendelein meets her fate as the bride of the Nickelmann and sinks into the water. Wood and water spirits discuss the matter, and the former prophesy that a manchild will soon fill a watery cradle. Meanwhile, defiant Heinrich calls out for his loved one, ready to throw a stone at parson, barber, teacher, or sexton. Wittikin bars his way and points to a flaming, incomplete cathedral-castle. Determined to go on and yet exhausted, he drinks from the well before he attempts to reach the flaming ruins. A beloved voice sings a good-bye, although the sound is only half remembered.
Wittikin comforts Heinrich in his final minutes, tells him he was a hardy one, and grants him a boon. He drinks first a goblet of the white wine of life, which he drains to the last drop. Then he drinks a second of red, of the questing spirit. Just then Rautendelein appears, although urged back into the well by the Nickelmann. Heinrich calls for the final goblet of yellow wine, which is brought by Rautendelein. This he feels is all aspiration, sun wine poured into his veins by the evanescent one. Only in death does the master bell-founder, embraced and kissed by his great love, hear the chimes of the sun break through the night of life into the dawn of eternity.
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